SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Infrastructure is the one way you can get ‘win win’ outcomes from Basin reform, the way you can actually return water to the environment whilst keeping productive capacity on-farm and for Australia and that’s why it’s the best option for support by government, the best option for local communities and it’s why we need to see the money delivered for infrastructure and programs acted on so that you can get that water returned to the environment without driving farmers off the land or closing down communities.
ROB HERRICK: It was revealed in Question Time yesterday that the $5.9 billion for water infrastructure hadn’t been spent by this Government, does that concern you?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It’s a real concern that $5.9 billion was allocated in 2007 for water infrastructure spending and less than $450 million has actually been spent. This is wasted opportunity and particularly at a time now when we see just how much pain and suffering there is in rural communities, where we see the real concerns about what the Basin reform process is going to mean, all of those concerns could have been eased if the money had been delivered, if the works had been acted on and we actually saw some environmental flows coming from water savings rather than simply the spectre of taking water off the farm.
ROB HERRICK: What would (unclear)?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It would be devastating to see this water lost, or this money lost, from the Murray-Darling reform process and I would certainly urge the Government to make sure that it keeps this money dedicated to Murray-Darling reform, dedicated particularly to water saving infrastructure projects, but actually gets on and delivers them, delivers them in conjunction with communities, it is the people on the ground who know best how they can implement the type of technology upgrades, the type of basic things and the lining or covering of open channels, that will actually save water that can be returned to the environment. We’ve seen through the drought just how clever and innovative farmers can be to become more efficient and still produce food for Australia and the rest of the world and with a bit more support we can actually make sure they can do that on a permanent basis far more efficiently than every community across the Basin and that can only be good for healthy rivers and healthy communities.
ROB HERRICK: South Australian farmers are already some of the most efficient water users, better infrastructure (unclear) out of that water. Would those farmers miss out on the nationwide plan for infrastructure in that they’ve pretty much (unclear)?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: South Australian farmers have in many ways led the way. There are other good examples, though, throughout the Basin, of other communities where people have done a great job upgrading their infrastructure and ensuring that their communities are as efficient as possible. That’s to be applauded. In many instances those upgrades have happened with Federal or State Government funded support and so it’s not a case of missing out this time around, it’s a case of people having done the right thing in the past. They’re to be applauded for that. In many cases, of course, they got to then expand the footprint of their irrigation operations and because a lot of the water that was saved in those instances went back into additional productive capacity. This time around it’s about the Government stepping in to fund upgrades to return water to the environment. That’s where the priority need is but we want to return it to the environment not at the expense of productive capacity or communities, we want to return it to the environment while keeping those communities and that production intact.
ROB HERRICK: Why are other states lagging so far behind us?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I think South Australians have always been very aware that they’re at the tail end of the river system, that they are the ones that feel the impact of drought, they’ve lived under a cap for several decades now and they’ve operated within that cap which of course has driven increased efficiency within the system as you try to get as much value for every drop of water possible. But South Australians aren’t the only ones who’ve brought about piping of water, who’ve brought about use of technology such as drippers, such as the type of meters now that can look at soil moisture and all of those range of technological upgrades that have made a big difference. Other communities have too but I’m proud as a South Australian of what our irrigators have done. There are more things that we can do and there will always be advances and so certainly there’s still things to do in SA but plenty to be done right across the Basin.
ROB HERRICK: And is better infrastructure a better approach to water saving than just buying back allocations off farmers?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Buybacks have their place but buybacks need to be strategic and frankly should be integrated with the type of infrastructure projects we’re talking about. The last thing we want to see is an instance where infrastructure projects are rolled out and then you see people selling up in those same regions where savings have been made for water and where efficiencies have been gained. You want to make sure that it’s an integrated process and what the Government’s failed to do at present is to make this an integrated process, they’ve charged ahead with buybacks, spending more than they’ve budgeted every single year Labor has been in office on buyback yet they’ve let infrastructure lag, spending less than budgeted every single year on water saving infrastructure projects. They’ve got this all about the wrong way, we need to be doing it in an integrated manner, put it in together, come up with the type of program to demonstrate how we can return water to the environment. It’s all very well having the Murray-Darling Basin Authority out there saying how much water you need to return to the environment, it’s how you do it that matters just as much and that’s where they’re really letting the side down.